You can be an artist if you’ve half a mind to

by Victoria James

Kristin Newton changes lives. Messages of appreciation fill her inbox. “This is a turning point in our lives,” reads one. “We are looking at things so differently now.”

“See how [your teaching] truly does change lives!” enthuses another, its writer going on to say that she and her husband, formerly a high-flying executive, had decided to change jobs and move abroad.

Newton isn’t a New Age guru; nor is she a therapist or a counselor. She’s an art teacher.

But the art class she teaches from a small studio in Azabu-Juban in Tokyo’s Minato Ward is far from ordinary. It follows the program set out in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards, who is now professor emeritus of art at California State University in Long Beach.

The book, first published in 1979, has two principal messages: that artistic proficiency can be taught; and that to awaken latent artistic potential, the brain’s underused right hemisphere must be activated. The basic principles of the course are contained in a five-day, 40-hour workshop, and it is this program that Newton, with the collaboration of Yoshiko Koga, has been teaching in Tokyo since 1993.

“People say that giving art lessons, especially to children, is a waste of time,” explains Newton. “There’s this idea that some people can draw ‘naturally.’ But that’s like giving a book to a child and saying ‘read.’ It’s like saying that someone can read because their grandmother could, because ‘reading runs in that family.’ It’s ridiculous. But that’s how people think of art, as if it can’t be taught.”

Dramatically different before-and-after pictures — usually participants’ self-portraits — are the familiar image (and best marketing tool) of the Right Side courses, which Newton also teaches in Hong Kong.

But how much is inspiration, and how much is technique?

I went along to one two-hour session to find out, taking with me, as I’d been asked to do, a pencil sketch of my hand. In class, I and the other five students again made a pencil drawing of our hand — this time under Newton’s tuition. Afterward, when we compared the result with our earlier effort, we would all be surprised.

Part of the effect derives simply from presentation: We drew a frame and guiding cross-hairs and, as we smoothed a “ground” of fine pencil across the paper, our efforts seemed artistic already. Then came the surprise: Placing a plexiglass sheet over our hand, we traced its outline. With painstaking measurement we copied the outline to our sketch pad. This completed, we were free to concentrate on effects of shadow and contour, which give body to a drawing.

Tracing a picture from life through a grid may sound like cheating, but it’s no more than the Old Masters did. We know, for example, that 17th-century artists, such as Artemesia Gentileschi, would survey a landscape through a grid-marked viewfinder, transferring what they saw, square by square, to the canvas in front of them.

But technical tradition isn’t good enough for some in the art educational establishment, who say that the Right Side emphasis on realism in art can only be at the expense of imaginative expression.

“There was one teacher who didn’t want us to teach Right Side to her class,” recalls Newton, who is often invited to give classes in schools. “She thought it was stifling children’s imaginations. But she came right over to our side when she saw what was happening. If you don’t look, how can you draw from imagination? Because it’s through looking that the imagination becomes rich and true.”

Indeed, while Japan has often harnessed notions of the “Right Brain” to the service of intensive learning — the right hemisphere being a kind of storehouse into which ever-more information can be packed — enlightened educators are waking up to the creative potential latent in the seemingly simple act of looking. “After all,” notes Koga, “we take in information through our five senses, but 80 percent through our eyes.”

Newton and Koga have given two-day workshops in Tokyo as part of the annual conference of the Association for School Curriculum Development. For the past three years, the pair have also run a workshop in Nasu, Fukushima Prefecture, for teachers and administrators from across the country. Participants, often initially reluctant, go on a nature ramble, make collages and feel objects through a curtained box and draw them “blind.” “You should see them by the end!” says Newton. “They are really looking, taking an interest in everything.”

Birgitta Dallwig-Yajima, a counselor and physical therapist based in Tokyo, values the way the Right Side regimen holds the interest of children she counsels for attention-deficit disorder. “One child took the workshop and he changed quite a lot,” she says. “He really started to look. Looking, and learning to process what you see, is so important nowadays, as children have so much information directed at them. Kids who have done this course do well, there’s really something happening — though then, of course, parental backup is needed.”

It is difficult for educationists, students and Newton alike, however, to put their finger on what that “something” is that happens in Right Brain classes.

“We don’t get into the psychology of it in the classes,” says photographer Sylvia Eichmann, who took the course in 1993. “But when you look at things so closely, nonjudgementally, there has to be some kind of shift in a person’s heart.”

“Betty Edwards keeps telling us ‘just teach art, don’t get bogged in the psychology,’ ” says Newton. “But you become so much more sensitive, gain such insight. Maybe, if we taught this to the whole world then there’d be no more wars,” she adds with a smile, “because once you’ve really studied and drawn another human being, how could you ever kill one?”

Little about the Right Side course is scientifically provable, but beyond question is the enthusiasm of those who have followed it.

Mind-altering? Perhaps. Confidence-boosting? Definitely. Life-changing? For some.